Question: I rent a house owned by someone who apparently is having financial problems. The overall quality of service from the owner has deteriorated in recent months and now I am getting copies of notices from the utility company threatening to shut off the power because of nonpayment. I have been continuing to pay the rent due under our rental agreement. What are my choices here?
Answer: Tenants whose landlords fail to provide utilities that are supposed to be included in the rent used to have very limited remedies. But in 2009, California passed a group of amendments to the California Civil Code and to the Public Utilities Code that, in summary, allow tenants to bypass errant landlords.
Assuming that there is a separate meter for the house you rent, the laws require the utility to send you a notice 10 days before shut-off, with an opportunity for you to qualify to open your own separate account. Most important, Civil Code Section 942.2 allows you to deduct the subsequent utility payments from the monthly rent you would otherwise owe the landlord once you establish your own account.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.